Those of you familiar with the Heart Sutra know that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” is the most important statement in the text. In one commentary I have on the sutra, an older one titled The Cave of Poison Grass, Seikan Hasegawa, a Rinzai Zen priest, explains the declaration this way:
Sunyata [emptiness] is the beginningless beginning of the world which has two aspects: wisdom, which is emptiness, and love, which is form. Emptiness tells us the sameness, and form tells us the difference. The sameness sees the substance of all forms. Then it can be said that a mountain is not different from an ocean, mountain is ocean; or man is not different from woman, the man is woman. Their value is not different, both are the same. And as humanity, woman and man, the old and young, the poor and the rich, the wise and the foolish, and all such contrasting individuals do not differ; every one has the same respectable value.
It is possible to view emptiness as a “beginningless beginning” because in Buddhism the continuum of consciousness is said to be beginningless; and consciousness arises dependent upon causes and conditions, and Nagarjuna taught that anything which is dependent arising equals emptiness.
Hasegawa’s commentary tells us in simple terms not only what lies behind this famous phrase from the sutra but also many of the seemingly paradoxical statements we read in Buddhist literature. The opening sentence of Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra comes to mind: “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way.”
Emptiness refers to the realm of awakening, but this realm is not separate from the world of suffering. “Form is emptiness” directs us to the path that leads to the transcendence of suffering and awakening, while “emptiness is form” is the reverse path, from awakening to suffering. The point of divergence between these two paths is resolved through non-duality. They are two paths and yet they are not two.
The concept of emptiness is a great equalizer because it shows us how all things are equal in value. It undermines the foundations of hatred, racism, nationalism – all the things that lead to conflict and violence. That’s one reason why emptiness is often called “the insight of equality.”
The Buddha asked, “Manjusri, in what equality do those sentient beings who act with the three poisons abide?”
Manjusri replied, “They abide in the equality of emptiness, signlessness, and wishfulness.”